January 29, 2015


Schubert: Symphonies Nos. 1-6, 8 and 9. Bamberger Symphoniker conducted by Jonathan Nott. Tudor. $49.99 (4 CDs).

Saint-Saëns: Symphony No. 3, “Organ”; Cyprès et Lauriers; Danse macabre. Vincent Warnier, organ; Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Leonard Slatkin. Naxos. $9.99.

Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 1; The Rock. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln conducted by Dmitrij Kitajenko. Oehms. $16.99.

     Different composers have looked for very different things when creating symphonies. Schubert largely explored the intricacies of orchestration and some new methods of handling key relationships and formal structure in his first six symphonies – although it is a mistake to consider all six as a group, since they have strong individual characters, such as the Mozartean chamber-like delicacy of No. 5 and the considerable influence of Rossini in No. 6. After his first six symphonic works, written between 1813 (when the composer was just 16) and 1818, Schubert dithered about quite a bit while trying to figure out what he wanted to do with symphonic form and what it would best express for him. His very rarely performed Symphony No. 7 in E, which exists in short score but of which only 110 bars were orchestrated, is larger-scale and reaches for far broader expressiveness than his earlier works. It clearly marks a transition to the world of the “Unfinished” and “Great C Major” symphonies, which, however, are sometimes given the numbers 7 and 8 (as indeed they are in the new Tudor recording of the cycle) – as if the E major work did not exist. Actually, the better numbers for the latest symphonies are 8 and 9, even though this points up the glaring gap in Schubert symphonic recordings – because the “Unfinished” did not spring from nowhere and mark a dramatic departure for Schubert; rather, it was a leap forward from the platform of Symphony No. 7 in E. Jonathan Nott’s recordings of the Schubert symphonies date to 2003, except for his reading of No. 9, which is from 2006. All the performances show the ever-versatile Bamberger Symphoniker at its usual best: the early symphonies are fleet, bright, wearing their heritage of Haydn and Mozart (with hints of Beethoven, notably in No. 4) to very good effect. Even when Nott overdoes tempos here and there, as in pushing the third movement of No. 1 or keeping the finale of No. 5 and first part of the finale of No. 6 unusually slow, the orchestra never flags or becomes ragged, and its sound fits the music like the proverbial glove. In the final two symphonies, Nott, who is especially skilled with the intricacies of large-scale symphonic music (Mahler’s, for example), elicits from the orchestra a fullness and intensity beyond what it shows in the earlier symphonies. The result is a full-bodied “Unfinished” in which the two completed movements contrast very well in sound and structure despite the fact that they are essentially in the same tempo (Allegro moderato and Andante con moto). Fascinatingly, Nott includes after the second movement of this work the first nine bars of the third movement – the only ones that Schubert scored. There actually exists a continuation of this movement, up to the Trio, and it has even been recorded (the nine scored bars turning into piano-only ones afterwards in a memorable reading by Max Goberman); but just hearing the nine scored bars under Nott is enough to make listeners who know this highly familiar music wonder, or wonder yet again, where Schubert might have taken the symphony – or whether he considered it actually finished in its two-movement form. Nott’s recording concludes with a truly monumental performance of the “Great C Major,” a work in which what Schubert was seeking was clear: he wanted to move the symphony beyond Beethoven, and he certainly did so in this very long, towering work (which lasts over an hour in Nott’s rendition, which – happily – takes all the repeats). It was this symphony that was so influential on later creators of gigantic symphonic works, notably Bruckner, and Nott gives the music plenty of opportunity to open up, expand and fill listeners’ ears and minds. Nothing drags, but everything gets lots of time to develop and sound out in the uniquely Schubertian mixture of forward drive and leisurely flowing thematic beauty. Schubert left so many pieces of symphonies strewn about that it is uncertain whether he ever found everything he sought from the medium – but in his final symphony, he certainly did find the beginning of a path to the future of symphonic music.

     What Saint-Saëns sought in his third numbered symphony (he wrote five in all, two being unnumbered and unpublished) was made clear by the composer himself: he wanted to expand the use of instruments in the orchestra by including both an organ and a piano (played both two-hands and four-hands) within the usual complement of orchestral instruments. Neither keyboard instrument dominates the symphony; indeed, despite the “Organ” subtitle (Saint-Saëns actually said “with organ”), the organ enters only in the second movement and appears only there and in the finale – although because of the work’s innovative structure (the four movements are grouped into two sets of two), the use of both organ and piano is structurally significant throughout. Written in 1886 and dedicated to Liszt, who died shortly before the symphony’s première, this piece uses many Lisztian techniques, including the movement grouping and the evolution throughout the symphony of a cyclic theme. Even the inclusion of the organ recalls Liszt’s instrumentation of the symphonic poem Hunnenschlacht (“The Battle of the Huns”). However, Saint-Saëns’ symphony flows in a way recognizably that of its composer, and it is this flow that Leonard Slatkin and the Orchestre National de Lyon bring out particularly well in a new Naxos recording. The fine organ work by Vincent Warnier fits the overall mood of the symphony well, ringing forth when called for and remaining in the background as part of the ensemble elsewhere. In all, this is a highly effective performance of a symphony that is quite different from the composer’s other four and that also differs significantly from most symphonic works of its time. The organ gets greater prominence in Cyprès et Lauriers, a much-less-known Saint-Saëns piece written quite late in the composer’s life, in 1919. This is a work lamenting the losses of World War I in its first movement and celebrating the Allies’ triumph in its second – all in the context of something like a concertino for organ and orchestra, with the organ assuming greater prominence here than in Symphony No. 3. Warnier is front-and-center here in a way that he is not in the symphony, encouraged to dominate the music and doing so with forthright strength. He plays an organ with a variegated history: it was originally one of the great Cavaillé-Coll instruments, built in 1878; it was reconstructed in 1939 in a new location; then it was moved again, this time to the Lyon Auditorium, in 1977, where it was restored in 2013. Much changed and expanded through its various incarnations, the organ shows its full capabilities in Danse macabre, whose 1874 original was transcribed for organ in 1919 by Edward Lemare – the result being a version that Warnier himself took up and redid in 2004 to showcase the capabilities of the Lyon Auditorium organ, which indeed sounds enormously impressive in this tour de force.

     The organ seems particularly well-suited not only to Danse macabre but also to the Dies irae, which Saint-Saëns both uses and parodies in his Symphony No. 3. The Dies irae did not obsess the French composer, however: he merely used it as one important thematic element. It did, on the other hand, become an obsession of Rachmaninoff, in whose Symphony No. 1 (1893-95) it is prominent – as it was to be in many of the composer’s later works. This is the symphony whose failure at its première was so serious that it precipitated a mental collapse that made it nearly impossible for Rachmaninoff to continue composing until after he was treated for three years by Nikolai Dahl using the then-new techniques of psychotherapy. The symphony is somewhat cruder than Rachmaninoff’s two later ones, but it does not deserve its comparative neglect: it shares the other symphonies’ power and passion as well as their orchestral sound. The Gürzenich-Orchester Köln under Dmitrij Kitajenko pulls out all the stops – an organ metaphor, though this symphony does not use that instrument (although it does include snare drum, tam-tam, tambourine and bass drum). The result of Kitajenko’s care and intensity is a performance that shows the composer’s developing musical personality while also tying the symphony clearly to Tchaikovsky, whose Manfred Symphony Rachmaninoff had transcribed for piano duet in 1894. Rachmaninoff’s First does ramble and meander somewhat, but it has considerable power from its opening bars and evinces a sureness of orchestration that shows just how capably the composer, then in his early 20s, could already manage a large ensemble. The work is paired on this new Oehms CD with The Rock, an even earlier piece (1893) and an even more Tchaikovskian one. Rachmaninoff actually played The Rock on piano for Tchaikovsky and others, and the older composer had asked to include it in a European concert tour that did not occur because of Tchaikovsky’s death. It is easy to see why Tchaikovsky took to this atmospheric work, which draws scenically both on the poetic notion of a cloud resting upon a rock and on a Chekhov story in which a young girl hears an older man’s life story during a blizzard. Rachmaninoff shows himself here to be an adept tone-painter, and Kitajenko fully explores the coloristic aspects of the score while allowing it to flow freely through its several moods. Kitajenko recently completed an excellent Tchaikovsky symphonic cycle and now seems poised to do an equally fine job with the Rachmaninoff symphonies and other orchestral works.

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